Pen Friends ~ You’re in for a treat today! We have debut Ya author, Sarah Carlson, here to talk about her upcoming book, All the Walls of Belfast. Find out she got her agent and what keeps her going as she shares about her querying, publishing, marketing, traveling dreams, and writing process & journey. Learning from and listening to other authors can help us a lot. Enjoy!
SP: Hi Sarah! Thanks for joining us. First, can you please tell us a bit of who are you and how long have you have been writing?
SC: Hey, thanks for having me! I write contemporary YA that touches on issues that make you think. By day, I’m a school psychologist working at an elementary school; my focus is on supporting mental health and behavioral needs. I also work to support and directly intervene around children who have been exposed to trauma. I’ve loved writing since 4thgrade, when I got picked to represent my grade at a writing competition. In middle school, it was hundreds of pages of Stephen King fan fic scrawled on loose-leaf paper. Then high school saw me creating an epic universe for a sci-fi novel that grew to over 240,000 words and will never again see the light of day.
SP: Your debut, All the Walls of Belfast, will come out March 2019. Can you tell us a bit more? How did this idea come about? Why Belfast?
I first traveled to Belfast in July 2011 as a part of a group, with the purpose of understanding the Troubles and its impact. While there, I had the opportunity to go on political tours of the Shankill and the Falls lead by former Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA) members, tour museums, and speak with individuals who grew up in Belfast during the Troubles. I also was able to attend an Eleventh Night bonfire and the Twelfth of July parade, both Protestant Loyalist celebrations of the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II in 1690. One thing that stuck with me was the fact that, almost twenty years after the Troubles ended, there are still peace walls in Belfast separating working class Protestant Loyalist neighborhoods from Catholic Republican ones. These experiences left me wanting to understand both the history of the Troubles and how it shaped the current situation. I visited Belfast two more times to further research setting, dialect, culture, and perspectives (in addition to tons of research and hiring sensitivity readers).
Through all that, I found a story to tell about a boy and a girl from very different worlds with one big thing in common: a desire to escape their families’ violent legacies as they’re grasping for their own futures. But, when they need one another the most, one ugly truth might shatter everything.
SP: How long did it take you to write ATWB? And what is your writing process like?
All the Walls of Belfast was an incredibly complex book to write. Not only was I writing characters and setting outside my lane, I also had to contend with a complex social/political/historical context and a dual point-of-view story. It took over five years to research and write. And re-write. And re-write. And … I think re-write. I had to go above and beyond my typical writing process and, at times, take on what felt like the role of researcher, historian, and journalist in order to truly understand and try to hopefully accurately represent it. I also had to push myself out of my comfort zone and seek out others from Belfast to help me. The basic idea, a boy and a girl separated by religion and a peace wall, stayed constant, but their individual stories evolved with each re-write.
But, more generally, I tend to be a Pantsner, or a Planster. What I mean by that is my natural inclination is to be a Pantser. The novels I write are all about characters, and the plots therefore are driven by the characters. I discover my characters as I write, not just who they are and what they’re interested in, but I discover much deeper things, like their core beliefs about themselves, the world, and the people around them. I discover their insecurities and what about their core selves, their personalities, makes them strong. I get to know WHO THEY ARE on a deeper level.
All of this is what determines how they will act and react to other characters and the obstacles thrown in their way, which is the plot.
But at the same time, I can’t just throw characters together and see what happens. I need at least a bare bones idea of what might happen, a plan. So what I try to do is start with a general idea of what the central conflict and antagonist are, then try to flesh out a bit of the major plot points in the novel using a framework loosely based on The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structuresby Christopher Vogel.
What typically happens is the plot completely changes as I’m discovering my characters, but I do need at least a baby plot to start with. It’s not the fastest way to write, but for me it leads to a story with rich, deep characters who make decisions based on who they are, rather than to fit my plot.
SP: Each writer has something that has helped them along their writing journey–what has kept you moving forward?
For me, it’s always been a love of my characters, especially Danny. I can’t NOT write. And my mom likes to joke that once I put my mind to something, I make it happen.
SP: The Agent Crawl. We love hearing how authors found their beloved Agent. What was your journey like?
I queried two manuscripts before All the Walls of Belfastwith absolutely no requests at all. To be fair, when I started querying nine years ago, I had NO IDEA what I was doing. At all. Like my YA sci-fi was 240,000 words. There were years where I just gave up querying altogether, but I didn’t give up writing because I can’t. I love creating stories and have since I started walking. I kept pushing myself to improve. I attended writing conferences, researched effective query letters, learned more about HOW to write a book, wrote new books. Worked with a few writing coaches. Found critique partners. Joined writing groups. Kept pushing myself. Kept writing.
With All the Walls of Belfast, I was very reluctant to even start querying, but I worked hard on compiling a list of agents (which included Claire). Then in 2014 I discovered the joy of the YA writing Twitter community. The first contest I participated in (with All the Walls of Belfast) was Pitch Wars. I was one of those hopeful mentees who read all the signs and was SURE I was going to be picked. I wasn’t. But my query materials were in much better shape and I’d amassed many new, skilled writing friends I still talk to. Then I participated in a few more Twitter-based writing contests and didn’t get picked.
Just as I was preparing to (finally) traditionally query, one of my writer friends told me about a Twitter pitching contest called #Pitchmas, right before Christmas. I was almost like, what’s the point, but she helped me prepare a few 140 word tweets, so I went for it. And . . . Claire liked one of my tweets! I sent her my materials. Ironically, if I remember correctly, she didn’t even ask for my query after all that work. I made a point of telling her I’d planned on querying her. I sent the full, and I think THE CALL came in late January 2015. I reached out to other agents who had my query, got a few more full requests, then gave them a week to read them. In the end, I decided Claire’s vision for my novel, and her enthusiasm, was the perfect fit!
SP: What has your publishing journey been like? Did anything surprise you along the way? What did you learn about your writing or the industry?
It took three years of writing (and re-writing basically the whole novel piece-by-piece) before my novel even went on submission. Though, to be fair, I do work full-time and had my daughter during those years, so time was a precious commodity. After we went on sub, All the Walls of Belfast sold in I think six weeks to Turner Publishing Company. The good news though was, because of all that hard work, I didn’t need to do any developmental edits with my editor at Turner and we got to go straight to copy edits basically. Some of my other debut novel friends spend months and months on several rounds of developmental edits with their publisher. My timeline for publication is less than a year, but most of my other 2019 debut novel friends have longer timelines, some up to two years after signing their contracts.
One of the most surprising things has been how much happens behind the scenes without me knowing. This book had been all mine, every decision completely under my control for years, but now it’s a shared project. Thankfully, Turner is as passionate about Fiona and Danny and All the Walls of Belfastas I am 😊
SP: Marketing– All debuts are a bit nervous about marketing their first book. What are some tips you have learned? What still makes you nervous?
Marketing needs can vary greatly depending on your publishing situation, and how much your publisher is willing or able to do. I think for me, the best thing has been watching what other writers are doing and taking inspiration from that. But really, I think the most important thing is forming meaningful and reciprocal connections with others in the writing and reading worlds. Being a part of the Novel Nineteens, a group of YA and MG authors debuting in 2019, has been extremely helpful. Not only can we swap ideas, we also help spread the word about each other’s books.
Focus on what you CAN control. Your publisher’s marketing budget for your book is out of your control, but it’s your career. Setting a budget and getting creative with your book swag if you decide to have some. Using your own talents and interests to develop things to promote your book; for example, I like making novel aesthetics and book trailers using mostly pictures I took while in Belfast. Here’s a link to my book trailer: https://youtu.be/K3i5YSUL5Gk
Also finding and connecting with influencers and stakeholders in your novel’s literary realm. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking putting yourself out there, opening yourself up for rejection by reaching out to authors for book blurbs, booktubers, bloggers, and instagrammers, but the worst they can say is no, and sometimes bigger risks lead to bigger rewards. Really, the rejection never stops. Not after you sign an agent. Not after your sign a publishing contract. For me at least, it did get easier.
SP: What are some things that have inspired you along the way/as a child? Any life shaping moments that pointed you towards writing?
Honestly, I’ve always had a pretty wild imagination. My mom says I was the kid playing by myself creating elaborate worlds full of rich characters and stories. Then that just jumped to the page. In school, teachers also saw potential in my writing, which helped motivate me to keep at it.
SP: Which book has recently has stolen your heart? Which book was it when you were a kid?
The Carnival at Brayby Jessie Ann Foley and The Serpent Kingby Jeff Zentner. When I was a kid, it was definitely The Giver by Lois Lowry.
SP: Greatest writing tip you’ve heard up until now?
I don’t know if this is the GREATEST, but it’s hung with me the longest. Mrs. O’Neil, my English teacher junior year, always used to say “specific is terrific.” To be specific, I sprinkle concrete details (like names of stores and textures of sofa fabric and writing on a T-shirt) throughout my stories to make the reader feel like they’re immersed in a real, three-dimensional world, whether it’s a galaxy far, far away or some rural town in Wisconsin. It may be in part because of the rhyme, but that’s stuck with me all these years.
SP: Since your book takes place on another continent, we must ask–Traveler or homebody? What is your dream vacation?
I LOVE to travel, and I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to live in Singapore and travel to sixteen countries on four continents so far. My dream vacation… Hmmmm… Lately I’ve really been wanting to visit Scandinavia. I’m more of a climb-a-mountain than sit-on-a-beach person.
SP: Fav drink while writing?
Coffee (specifically flat whites when I can find a good one) and craft beer.
SP: Lastly, where can we learn more about YOU and your books? (websites, social media, etc!)
YABC Profile Page: http://www.yabookscentral.com/yaindie/22834-all-the-walls-of-belfast
Pre-order All the Walls of Belfast:
Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/ATWOBBandN
SP: Thanks for the fantastic interview and we wish you the best of luck!
Nova, signing off